On International Women’s Day, we’re focusing on one of the best ways for women to improve their lives, gain financial stability and empower them to live the lives they want to lead. Education, in all its forms, helps people grow their knowledge and discover better opportunities.
For women around the world, many of whom have struggled to access education, studying has helped to elevate their lives and provided them with better futures. Christina Shenouda, Director of Portfolio here at Open Colleges, has used education to transform her own life like many women, whilst balancing family life and childcare commitments. Here, she shares her inspiring story and tips for women at the start of their journey…
Can you tell us a little bit about your backstory and how you got into education?
When I left school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I went to a disadvantaged high school where they didn’t really explain what to do after school, so I decided to pick something and give it a go and enrolled in a double degree: Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Law.
I found myself really enjoying law, but when I entered legal practice I quickly realised I didn’t enjoy it as much. Working in law did not allow me to have the family life I wanted to have.
Obviously, that’s everyone’s choice, but I wanted to have a family life and a career in law couldn’t afford that. So, almost by accident I found myself teaching whilst finishing my Master’s in Law. This progressed into a career in education and I went on to pursue a Master’s in Education – my fourth degree by that point!
How did family life impact your journey?
I got married and soon after got pregnant, but studied the whole time. After the birth, I continued to study. The difficulty was that I was trying to sustain a homelife throughout all of this and that’s definitely…challenging, to say the least.
However, the investment that I made in education, though at the time was hard, was the best investment I ever made in myself.
Could you elaborate?
Well it’s probably a bit personal but a lot of women are in the same boat, so I’ll talk about it. Around 7 years ago my husband and I separated, and I found myself solely responsible for my financial position and my child’s future. It really brought home how valuable education was, because had I not studied hard even when struggling to balance family life, I wouldn’t have been in a position to support myself. A lot of single parents struggle, and education helps ease that burden.
That’s why I think education is so key to women. It gives us security and independence without having to rely on anyone else.
For women considering education, what advice would you give?
Be prepared to sacrifice. There’s no doubt about it, you have to sacrifice short-term for long term gain. Whether that’s time you miss out on with family and friends, or in time you’d usually rest, or a social life, you have to put them on the backburner. But the long-term benefits are significant.
If you’re a mother, you already perform planning and scheduling like a project manager – so studying is just adding another project into your planning. Consider study time as time that belongs to you, time that you can invest in yourself. I convinced myself that fitting study in with my life was easy, so it became easy.
Can you expand on the sacrifices? How hard were they?
You have to realise that those short-term sacrifices are worth it. I would have liked to have been there at times for my child but instead studied if it wasn’t a make or break event. Those sacrifices paid off in significant, lifechanging long-term benefits. If I’d listened to all the people telling me studying was a waste of time because there were a lot of other jobs I could pick, I’d have been in a very different position. But yes, the sacrifices are huge because they don’t just affect you, but your family too.
Look, you can’t wait for someone to create your dream for you. You’re the only one who can make it happen. The life I’ve got and can provide for my child is only possible through education.
What impact did being a mother have on your studying and career?
I found it was a great time to study, because it gave me some downtime to invest in education. That meant when I was ready to re-enter the workforce after maternity leave, I was coming back in a better position than when I left, which is the opposite experience most women have when returning to work.
Education gives you the confidence to feel like you can re-enter the workforce, especially if you’ve been out of it for a long time.
How do you think a child’s age impacts a mother?
Every phase of a child’s life has its own challenges. When they’re younger they have a greater physical demand so in those years I had to take on roles that were less challenging for me but gave me more flexibility to be there for my child. Now my child is a teenager, she doesn’t need me to be as physically present but does need me to be emotionally present.
The type of roles I move into now, I don’t need the same flexibility, but I do need a role I can go home and switch off. It’s just realising that each phase of a child’s life impacts the choices you make and what type of role you want to do.
Finally, Christina shared with us some tips for women in the workplace in light of International Women’s Day
I’ve talked about education a lot here, but the other element for me is in recognising other women going through challenge. As women, we should support other women who face the same challenges as us. If you’ve been through it, you should support others who are yet to reach that point. I try to support other women at any chance I can.
Only other women know what women go through, they’re different to the challenges that men have. I had different women in my career who supported me, managers who gave me time and flexibility. Once you reach that point, you should pay it forward as well.
If you are inspired by Christina’s story, why not take the first steps towards securing a better education and a brighter future? View our guide to getting started and begin empowering yourself today!